Editor’s Note: The past year was filled with uncertainty over politics, the economy and the ongoing pandemic. In the face of big changes, people found themselves longing for a different time. CNN’s series “The Past Is Now” examines how nostalgia manifested in our culture in 2022 — for better or for worse.
On certain corners of the internet, a segment of women is exhibiting a nostalgia for an era it has never known.
These millennials and zoomers glamorize the aesthetics of 1950s Americana, donning retro fit-and-flare dresses and posting vintage illustrations of aproned housewives placing dinner on the table.
Their politics, too, hearken back to that of the post-World War II boom (at least, for those who were straight, White and middle class). In their ideal society, men are the providers, women are the homemakers and the nuclear family is the holy grail.
These young women belong to a small subculture called “tradwives.” Short for traditional wives, tradwives aren’t your average stay-at-home moms. They sneer at what they consider to be modern-day feminism, with its girlbosses and its ungratifying grind, and wax lyrical about the value of traditional gender roles. Crucially, they promote submission to one’s husband, sometimes evoking fundamentalist Christian principles in their beliefs.
As tradwives showcase their idyllic, domesticated lives on social media, implicit is the message that today’s women and girls are being “red pilled” by the feminist movements that promise to liberate them – and that true security and fulfillment can be achieved by reverting to certain norms of the past.
Tradwives are a fringe subculture
In the grand scheme of internet phenomena, tradwives are a fringe group.
Online mentions of tradwives go at least as far back as five years ago, but 2020 saw a noticeable uptick in usage of the term, according to Deborah Etienne, a data analyst and researcher for the social media marketing agency Brandwatch. The tradwife discourse continued to grow in 2022 as tradwife content across social media increased and media outlets subsequently covered the trend. But while Etienne found about 152,000 mentions of tradwives across Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, forums and blogs over the last year, negative mentions overwhelmingly outnumbered positive ones – suggesting a strong backlash is present, too.
Though the numbers of self-identified tradwives are low, social media has allowed them to reach sizable audiences. The 10 to 15 largest tradwife accounts have tens of thousands of followers across Instagram and YouTube, according to an analysis from Political Research Associates, a think tank focused on the US political right.
Women who associate with the label exist on a spectrum of sorts, with varying ideas about what it means to be a tradwife and varying reasons for promoting those ideas. Estee C. Williams, who is 24 and posts tradwife content on TikTok, said she doesn’t consider herself to be “super traditional” but implements traditional gender roles in her life and relationship – which she frames as a personal choice. She said she isn’t concerned with whether others adopt those same values, but is merely sharing her lifestyle with others who want to embark on a similar path.
“I love the ’50s aesthetic with my own modern twist on homemaking,” she told CNN. “The difference is that we have the choice. Women can choose not to be homemakers or work, or have a mix.”
British author and blogger Alena Kate Pettitt, meanwhile, has written on her website The Darling Academy about what she feels tradwives are not, while noting that her intent isn’t to indoctrinate other women.
“Though a traditional housewife may submit to her husband, she is not considered of lesser importance to him,” she wrote in one post. By Pettitt’s definition, a tradwife isn’t opposed to women’s rights but “openly rejects the side of feminism that is man-hating, takes a victim mentality in all things, and promotes that ‘The Future is Female.’”
And she writes that a tradwife doesn’t want to go back to the 1950s, but “she simply likes that time because it was the last time her occupation was celebrated in mainstream media.”
Their ideas aren’t particularly new
Women who advocate for strictly traditional gender roles aren’t a new phenomenon – anti-feminists in the early 19th and 20th centuries resisted women’s suffrage, and some activists in the late 20th century opposed the Equal Rights Amendment.
What sets tradwives apart from their predecessors is the visibility those social media platforms afford them, said Catherine Rottenberg, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham whose work examines neoliberal feminism.
Tradwife influencers package their ideas about the natural order of things into blog posts and bite-sized content and, in some cases, monetize their efforts. Pettitt shares Yorkshire pudding recipes and etiquette tips alongside posts titled “Your husband should always come first!” and “Men are not toxic: A year of advocating traditional family values.”
“The movement, more generally, depends on savvy entrepreneurial women like these, who – through their social media activities, classes, courses, advice books and products – advocate and popularize tradwifehood as a desirable choice and identity,” Rottenberg wrote in an email to CNN, borrowing from a 2020 piece she and her colleague Shani Orgad wrote for The Conversation.
She added, “Far from rejecting neoliberal capitalism, the tradwife movement is deeply embedded in it.”
Tradwives reflect an anxiety around societal shifts
Five years after #MeToo sparked a global conversation around sexual violence, sexism and power, it might seem puzzling that a life of traditional gender roles and submission to a male partner is resonating with some young women.
But in longing for the culture of 1950s domesticity, these women are responding to our current political moment, said Rottenberg. While the “Lean In,” girlboss movement of the early 2010s encouraged women to do more and work harder, critics characterized it as elitist and out of touch. By the time the pandemic hit, women were up against an “always-on” work culture, stagnating wages and an eroded social safety net – with a now worsening caregiving crisis. In a society where women already shoulder the majority of unpaid domestic work, staying home to focus on the household full time might be preferable – though also a privileged choice.
“If there is no reliable health care, if women are making less money than their partners due to the gender wage gap and if there is no decent child care, then women ramping off the career path and serving their husbands and children provides a Band-Aid to these larger crises – and provides this Band-Aid with ideological cover,” Rottenberg wrote.
Indeed, burnout is one of the factors that Williams cites in her decision to become a tradwife. Though she always knew she wanted to be a mom, she said she felt pressured to pursue a career, taking on a challenging course load in college while also working a job. But Williams said balancing it all was exhausting, and she realized she didn’t want to experience the stress that her mother did as a single, working parent.
“I didn’t want to see myself struggle that way, and I definitely didn’t want to see myself struggle in school and struggle in work,” Williams said. “I wanted to figure out what my purpose was. When I became a strong spiritual woman, I figured out myself.”
Rather than recognizing crises of child care and overwork as structural problems, tradwives typically point the finger at feminism, Rottenberg said. It’s not particularly surprising that tradwives consider themselves to be anti-feminists, given that their fixed notions of gender and glorification of “alpha males” are precisely what many feminists have long fought against. But as Rottenberg sees it, the tradwife response reflects a particular failing in western liberal feminism rather than feminism writ large.
“Liberal feminism advocated for middle-class women to join the workforce as part of an emancipatory agenda,” Rottenberg wrote. “But if the workplace is toxic, and makes us sick, then entering the workplace doesn’t feel very emancipatory.”
In championing so-called traditional values, tradwives also push against aspects of modern society, including hookup culture and the objectification of women. The idea of a man who protects and provides for his wife, then, might offer women a sense of control and stability, Rottenberg adds – though it’s worth noting that fixed gender roles in the ’50s did not offer relief from domestic abuse or overwork.
“Precisely at a time when normative gender roles and dominant notions of sexuality have been challenged and in flux – while work life feels overwhelming – these ‘traditional’ values might seem like a refuge,” she wrote. “Against a world that feels completely out of control, defining strict gender roles might feel empowering for some women.”
Tradwife content is being adopted by the far right
While tradwives are already a niche subculture, an even smaller faction of them are using tradwife content to spread more insidious ideas, says Annie Kelly, a journalist and researcher with expertise in anti-feminist and far right digital cultures.
Kelly describes the overlap between tradwives and far right movements as something of a Venn diagram. While there are some tradwives, including women of color, who simply hold conservative beliefs on the roles men and women should occupy in relationships, she said some on the alt right use tradwife aesthetics to recruit White women into the movement. Such influencers promote a contempt for modernity and feminism, as well as “a desire for an idealized and implicitly coded White past,” she said.
“If you’re a White influencer who’s espousing these things, there will be a quite pleasing overlap with how many White supremacists configure gender politics, because it coincides with lots of the alt right theories about what has gone wrong in the West,” said Kelly, who is also the UK correspondent for the podcast QAnon Anonymous.
Some tradwife accounts, for example, use rhetoric that nod to White nationalist ideas such as “replacement theory.” One tradwife influencer who goes by “Wife With A Purpose” came under fire in 2017 for reportedly issuing a “White baby challenge,” in which she encouraged her followers to have as many White babies as her. (References to the challenge have since been removed from her online presence.) More recently, a popular tradwife Instagram account posted a Time magazine cover featuring Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, labeling them as “beta male” and “modern woman,” respectively. “This is your sign to repopulate,” the accompanying text read.
Many tradwives also share the far right’s views on LGBTQ relationships, using phrases like “the natural order” in reference to gender roles. Some promote homeschooling to avoid exposing their children to progressive ideas about sex education and gender identity, Kelly added.
Though tradwives are a small subculture — and alt-right tradwives an even more fringe group — Kelly said it’s worth paying attention to how tradwife rhetoric has trickled into the mainstream.
“How many of the women rallying against overturning Roe are over-educated, under-loved millennials who sadly return from protests to a lonely microwave dinner with their cats, and no bumble matches?” Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted, shortly after the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning the constitutional right to abortion leaked. The tweet echoed frequent tradwife talking points, Kelly said.
Tradwives speak to an anti-modernity sentiment that has been bubbling up in internet culture and beyond for years – and the aesthetics and politics of anti-modernity go beyond tradwife circles, she noted.
“Conditions for young people are quite bad, frankly,” said Kelly, nodding to the slower economic growth that younger generations face today. “This pushes young people into a tendency to look back at the past with rose-tinted glasses.”
But this romanticized view of the past, Rottenberg said, is “completely fictive.”
“All they need to do is to read Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ to see that their yearning for a simpler life is misplaced.”